From Issue 21: Sleeping in Church

When Sanctuary Is Safe

Greg Paul / 11.8.22

From the now released Sleep issue of The Mockingbird, here’s an article by Greg Paul:

As a preacher, I can proudly say that I’ve never bored an audience so thoroughly that someone fell asleep and fell out a window. (“Fell asleep,” okay, yes. But never “fell out a window.” I know, it’s a low bar.) I plan to give the apostle Paul a little dig about that if, as I hope, I get to meet him someday.

However, having preached in many church and conference settings, on four continents, in a slew of countries, and over the course of several decades, I can also say with confidence that the gently bobbing head is a common sight — each dip a little lower than the last, until suddenly it jerks upright with a stunned and slightly embarrassed look. Often there’s an attempt at camouflage — the deliberate closing of the eyes, for instance, with the head raised and the mouth pursed, in the hope that the previous attitude might be taken for one of deep and prayerful contemplation of the sermon’s matter.

I preach far more often than I sit and listen to others — a situation that I admit is not ideal — but I do clearly remember what it was like, as a young carpenter and father to a burgeoning, very active brood, to fall asleep in church. The slightly stuffy air; the rare complete passivity; the rising tide of a general weariness; the comforting sound of the preacher’s voice as it became more distant and less distinct, until it was at last reduced to a soporific drone.

And crucially, it seems to me now, it was a circumstance in which I felt very safe and secure. Notably, it’s far less common to see that bobbing head in a conference setting, where attendees are surrounded by people they probably don’t know, and in a building or room that is unfamiliar. It’s most often folks comfortable in the pews of their own church who nod off.


“In peace I will both lie down and sleep,” the psalmist writes, “for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety” (Ps 4:8). While it seems unlikely that he had worship gatherings in view, perhaps it’s a strange sort of compliment to the church and preacher if someone falls asleep during the service now and then.

Illustration by Hannah Lock.

Many churches and monasteries of former times had an officer called a beadle, among whose functions was the responsibility of keeping congregants awake. In Puritan churches, the beadle would patrol the aisles carrying a long pole with a brass knob on the end with which he could rap the noggin of a dozing parishioner. The rigor of that expression of Christian faith reflected a view of a God who would not be amused by gentle snores in the midst of worship — a God who, perhaps, was not much inclined to be amused at any time for any reason.

While beadles have, thankfully, gone the way of frock coats and buckled shoes, the now more common mode of church services as performance/production — that is, a kind of spiritually oriented show presented to a largely passive audience — seem more oriented to sensory, emotional and (sometimes) intellectual stimulation than to restfulness or a deep sense of safety. We’re still being kept awake, but by other means. Would it be too bold to suggest that we seem now to serve a God who regards amusement, or at least entertainment of a sort, as a key function of the church?

While we can certainly benefit spiritually from those sorts of stimulation, I do wonder if we’re missing something. Today more and more voices are declaring that churches are too frequently not safe places; often the people crying out have already left because of exclusion or abuse. The tragic and unspeakably sordid list of popular Christian leaders, organizations, and megachurches revealed as purveyors of spiritual, emotional, financial, gender and especially sexual betrayal and oppression grows by the day. The personalities and situations that are extreme enough to make the news must surely be only the tip of the iceberg: they are as likely to thrive in a small rural congregation as anywhere else.

Any congregation, including its leadership, that believes the church’s primary purpose is providing a product to be consumed by congregants — even if it is regarded as a spiritual one — has surely fallen asleep. And not in the sense that the psalmist describes. I mean more in the character of the disciples catching forty winks at Gethsemane while Jesus sweats blood and the betrayer approaches.

Joshua White, digital photograph, 2014.

Jesus, our putative Master, repeatedly made it clear that his followers would be defined by their sacrificial love of and service to others, especially to those who because of their hunger, thirst, foreignness, degradation, sickness, or imprisonment are unsafe in the world. They are also identified as the ones who will find safety in the kingdom of God, and among whom we ourselves will find Jesus (Mt 25:34-40). It would be hard, in a great many churches, to describe ourselves as Jesus describes those who actually follow him.

How often do we church folk fret about relevance? Perhaps we should be more concerned about why those who are viewed by the world as irrelevant are not clamoring to find their safety in our midst.


For the past thirty years, it’s been my great privilege and joy to be embraced by a communion and community called Sanctuary, where people who are poor, crushed by loss, constantly excluded, and starving for justice — simply desiring to be treated right — are the focus, the center, and in many ways the animating spiritual power of almost all our activities. Most of my brothers and sisters are poor; many are homeless or marginally housed. Past and continuing traumatic experiences, and the dark fruit they bear, are the norm. These are people who have precious little experience of shalom (peace), nowhere to dwell in safety — who may “both lie down and sleep” on a piece of cardboard in an alleyway or stairwell or under a bridge. It’s because of these tragic realities, not in spite of them, that Jesus calls them “blessed,” which seems to mean that they are at the very heart of his kingdom (Mt 5:1-6; Lk 6:20-23).

I remember a man named James, curled up around his backpack in a doorway in one corner of Sanctuary’s auditorium, snoring raggedly and loudly enough for all to hear him as we shared Communion, sang songs, prayed, and preached. It wasn’t an isolated occurrence by any means, but it almost always raised smiles and chuckles, depending how loud he got. And I remember him starting awake one night, frightened and disoriented, and crying out, “What I want to know is, can I be forgiven? I remember the sigh that rippled through the congregation as we recognized this question echoing secretly in the chambers of our own hearts — even those of us who had the “right” theological answers. We knew, too, that for James it was no abstract query but a wrenching uncertainty rooted in crippling shame.

Illustration by Hannah Lock.

No doubt we’ve had visitors who were discomfited to find two or three people stretched out and sleeping soundly right in the midst of a worship gathering, not to mention a few more who might be passed out in the entrance vestibule or on the stairs. Perhaps it even seemed disrespectful of the sleepers, or lax on the part of those of us who facilitate worship or do the teaching. Those of us who knew James and his mates were merely grateful to know they were, for the moment, safe enough to slumber in a measure of peace.

For us as a communion, as a kingdom community, such safety is critical. Sanctuary is not a hostel. We don’t usually provide beds or a place to sleep overnight.[1] Despite this, members of our community routinely sleep on couches, in a few chairs pulled together, on the floor, in the staff meeting room, or wherever they can find space. The third-floor landing at the top of the entrance stairs and the platform are popular spots. We leave our brothers and sisters sleeping as long as we can, aware that, until the next time they come to our run-down old building, they may find no other place to rest without fear of freezing or being ripped off or assaulted.

One bitter winter night some years ago, a couple of our people discovered Marcel in a vestibule of the parking garage across the road. He was unconscious and close to hypothermia. They knew him well enough to know that he’d refuse to be taken in an ambulance, even if he was dying. For a lot of unhoused folks, hospitals (and officialdom of any kind) can be demeaning and frightening. So instead, they carried him back to Sanctuary, where we made a bed between two heating registers and covered him with blankets. I stayed with Marcel that night — his bed was right outside my office — working until late and then trying to sleep in my desk chair. We had laid him on his back; his mouth was wide open and propagating thunderous but wildly erratic snores. After a while, the sound didn’t bother me. It was the periodic lengthy silences that were frightening. Marcel’s health was precarious. He had barely regained consciousness while being hauled across the road and up the stairs. For the first several hours, each time the snoring stopped for a bit, I’d get out of my chair and crouch beside him in the dark, my ear near his mouth, listening. Holding my own breath until I heard his.

He slept through much of the next morning. When other people arrived, I went home and lay down in peace and slept in safety.

James and Marcel were both Indigenous men — Cree and Blackfoot, respectively. The Church has been famously unsafe for Indigenous peoples, actively and deliberately destroying families and cultures. As I write this, more than 10,000 unmarked graves of Indigenous children have been identified so far on the grounds of government-mandated, church-operated residential schools in my home country of Canada. Because I’m white and Christian, I should have looked like the enemy to men like James and Marcel. Their lives were blighted and oppressed, and ended far too early because of my racial and spiritual forebears.

And yet, both spent a great deal of time in their final years hanging out at and around Sanctuary. They ate there, slept there, made jokes, hung out with friends, showered, got medical care, showed up for worship (James, anyway; Marcel not so much), had the odd scrap and made the occasional prophetic pronouncement. They also, in a variety of ways, comforted and cared for me and a wide array of wealthier community members. They, and hundreds of others in similar situations, made Sanctuary a safer place. What grace.

Several years ago, a few of Marcel’s street brothers — also Indigenous men — found him sprawled in the little park next door, uncovered, unconscious again. A gentle rain was coming down. It was clear he was desperately sick. They carried him into the little alleyway between Sanctuary and the apartment building next door and, since Sanctuary wasn’t open yet, laid him tenderly on some cardboard and made a kind of lean-to to protect him from the rain. A little later they returned and, finding he wasn’t responsive, summoned Lyf, a Sanctuary staff member. Hearing the commotion, I followed.

Marcel lay on his back with his mouth wide open, almost exactly as he had outside my office that winter night years earlier. He wasn’t snoring, and I didn’t need to kneel beside him to know that he was gone.

We must not forget the systemic injustices that afflicted him and generations of his forebears, delivering him to homelessness and death in an alleyway. But we must also remember this: that his brothers had carried him home, to the one place in this world where he had been able to dwell in some small measure of safety. In peace, he lay there and slept.


Greg Paul is a pastor and member, as well as a founder, of the Sanctuary community in Toronto. Greg is the author of the recently released Resurrecting Religion and several other award-winning books: Simply Open; Close Enough to Hear GodBreathe; The Twenty-Piece Shuffle; and God In The Alley. He is married to Maggie; between them they have seven children and a growing brood of grandchildren.

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One response to “From Issue 21: Sleeping in Church”

  1. So poignant. Thank you, Greg.

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